During my second-to-last high table dinner in Wadham tonight, I got into a long conversation about Canada and climate change. The man with whom I was speaking asserted that (a) Canada would benefit directly from moderate warming and (b) Canada would benefit from activities that encourage global warming, such as the exploitation of the tar sands. Neither of these claims is unassailable on a factual basis, but the normative implications are more interesting to consider at the moment.
Let’s say that both claims are true. Should Canada act to combat climate change? To me, it seems the answer is an unambiguous yes. If I live uphill from a farm and have the opportunity to benefit from cutting down all the trees on my land, the fact that erosion will harm my downhill neighbour is not external from the consideration of what ought to be done. Depending on your conception of ethics, it may or may not be ethically appropriate for my neighbour to pay me not to cut down the trees. Regardless, the ethically optimal solution is generally to avoid impoverishing one’s neighbours to enrich oneself. This is especially true when you are much richer than those likely to be most immediately and significantly harmed. Being a mugger may be a personally advantageous course of action, but we have obligations to others that preclude it from being an acceptable choice for a member of society. Among a society of nations, there is likewise an obligation to behave with consideration for others, even if it diminishes one’s own prospects. Of course, such noble sentiments are hard to embed in policy.